Commander-in Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), President Jacob Zuma, emphasised the importance of the military in peacekeeping operations and keeping South Africa safe during a spectacular Armed Forces Day in Port Elizabeth.
The celebrations on 21 February marked the first time Armed Forces Day has been held at the coast and also for the first time featured a capability demonstration by the Navy, supported by the Air Force and Army and involving landing craft, patrol boats and helicopters.
This fourth annual Armed Forces Day, held on the anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917, began with the handing out of medals by Zuma to those who helped care for former President Nelson Mandela.
The President then delivered a speech in which he thanked those in uniform for their service to South Africa. He said the day was to show confidence in the military and showcase the technology used to protect the country. In the previous two weeks, thousands of people visited Navy ships, viewed static displays and night shooting demonstrations aimed at creating awareness of the work the military does.
Zuma pointed out that the SANDF not only protects South Africa’s borders but also carries out many non-military taskings such as flood and disaster relief, water delivery, bridge construction and community work and assists the police when necessary, such as during Operation Fiela.
Regarding peacekeeping missions, Zuma said that South Africa plays its role as mandated by the African Union and United Nations in an effort to see peace and stability on the continent. Zuma said that South Africa is passionate about peacekeeping and that is why its armed forces are ready to take part in peace support operations. “Our soldiers have continued to perform exceptionally well in peace missions and done us proud.”
One peacekeeping achievement highlighted by Zuma was the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Derrick Mgwebi to force commander of the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the largest peace support operation in the world, with some 20 000 personnel, including around 1 000 South African troops.
The appointment of Mgwebi is an indication of confidence the United Nations has in South Africa and its role in peacekeeping, Zuma said.
The president mentioned in his speech that the African Union has said that the guns must be silent in Africa by 2020 and South Africa is working towards that goal.
South Africa must be ready at all times for conflict and needs light mobile forces as well as the ability to support them logistically over long distances and cope with any escalation of hostilities, Zuma said. He added that such capabilities are envisioned in the 2014 Defence Review, which is ready for implementation.
Regarding the Defence Review, the Commander-in-Chief said it speaks to a modern defence force with a modern soldier and maps out the direction which the SANDF will take over the next 30 years.
After Zuma’s speech, a 21 gun salute sent clouds of smoke into the air before hundreds upon hundreds of military personnel from the Air Force, Army, Navy and Military Health Services marched past in formation and saluted Zuma.
They were followed by around a hundred military vehicles, showcasing almost all the vehicle types in the SANDF inventory, from armoured ambulances to radars, mortar vehicles and main battle tanks. Recovery vehicles and Namacurra boats on trailers completed the lengthy vehicle procession.
A large number of South African Air Force aircraft were out on show as well, and four Gripens, four Hawks, three C-130s and several Oryx helicopters took part in the flypast. The Cessna Caravan, C-47TP, King Air, PC-21, BK117, Oryx and Super Lynx were also in attendance. The Silver Falcons also flew past in tight formation.
The ceremonies were held along the Port Elizabeth seafront and offshore were a number of SA Navy vessels, including the Valour class frigate SAS Amatola, a Type 209 submarine, Namacurra harbour patrol boats, offshore patrol vessels and landing craft.
This year’s Armed Forces Day was unique in that it included a capability demonstration, which attracted large numbers of spectators. It began with a C-130 Hercules dropping equipment and half a dozen Maritime Reaction Squadron members into the sea. Next up was an anti-piracy demonstration that saw an Oryx helicopter fastrope a boarding team onto an offshore patrol vessel that had been ‘hijacked’.
Next, a Namacurra landed two special forces personnel on the beach, and a Rooivalk attack helicopter provided cover while an Oryx performed an evacuation.
In preparation for a beach landing, Gripens and Hawks, supported by naval artillery, ‘bombarded’ the beach, causing large explosions, allowing a small force to be fastroped by Oryx onto the sand. A Gecko vehicle was also helicoptered into the battle zone. With the beachhead secured, the main force of several dozen troops arrived by landing craft and stormed through the waves and up the beach.
Meanwhile, a BK 117 helicopter and then an Oryx evacuated troops via winch and rope. A flypast by most of the aircraft involved concluded what was without a doubt the most spectacular Armed Forces Day yet.